Want to explore the wilder side of France? Forget the Alps – head to the southwest and enjoy the staggering beauty of the Pyrenees.
You’ll find a spectacular mountain range that stretches 430km from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast, creating a natural frontier between France and the Iberian Peninsula. With soaring peaks, green valleys, and pristine mountain lakes, this majestic corner of France deserves your attention.
The Pyrenees is an important part of France’s natural heritage, a delicate ecosystem that sustains rare and endangered wildlife. The Parc National des Pyrénées covers 457 square kilometers of stunning countryside, where you’ll have the opportunity to spot rare animals and birds, hike through lush valleys and along craggy ridges, and dip your toes in the cool, clear waters of an alpine lake. Hiking in the Pyrenees is a wonderful way to get lost, leave the world behind, and immerse yourself in France’s wildest mountain range.
One of the best features of the Pyrenees is the abundance of mountain lakes that pepper the valleys and tall peaks. You’ll find high alpine tarns, perfectly reflecting the snowcapped mountains in their clear waters, and expansive lakes and reservoirs, nestled in lush valleys and glowing with warm turquoise colors. To give you a little inspiration for your next Pyrenean adventure, we’ve put together a list of our favorite lakes in the region. These beautiful natural spots are sure to get you reaching for your hiking boots!
Lac de Gaube
The stunning Lac de Gaube is situated in the Hautes-Pyrénées, close to the town of Cauterets. The name ‘Gaube’ actually means ‘lake’ in the local Gascon language, and this beautiful body of water is literally the lake of lakes! The Lac de Gaube sits in the shadow of the majestic Vignemale Range, which includes the Vignemale itself, the highest summit in the French Pyrenees, standing at an elevation of 3928m. These spectacular peaks are crowned with hanging glaciers, mirrored perfectly by the still waters of the lake.
There’s no better way to experience the beauty of the Lac de Gaube than by following this popular hiking trail from the Pont d’Espagne, a beautiful lush valley that was once part of an ancient trading route between France and Spain. It’s possible to take the chairlift all the way up to the lake, but the ascent on foot isn’t too challenging, and the views are well worth the effort.
The path meanders gently through the beautiful valley, crisscrossing streams and passing the pretty stone bridge known as the Pont d’Espagne. The scenery is simply stunning, with tumbling waterfalls, lush forests, and the towering Vignemale massif looming up ahead. Keep your eyes open for a glimpse of the rare ibex and isards (a type of rare Pyrenean goat-antelope). The lake remains hidden until right at the last moment of the hike, the perfect surprise ending to your adventure!
There’s no wild camping permitted near the lake itself, but there are several nearby refuges, which offer basic accommodation and food in the summer hiking season. These warm and friendly refuges are an ideal option if you’re planning on tackling the GR10, a long-distance hiking trail that traverses the length of the Pyrenees. Alternatively, head back towards the pretty spa town of Cauterets and choose one of the surrounding campsites. Cauterets makes an excellent base for exploring the wider region, with plenty of excellent restaurants and bars. Don’t miss the chance to sample some delicious local cheeses and other Pyrenean delicacies!
The Lacs d’Ayous are a collection of small, beautiful lakes in the western part of the range, and the destination for one of the most iconic day hikes in the Pyrenees. Expect majestic mountain views, serene alpine lakes, and classic Pyrenean scenery. The trail climbs through a lovely forest, arriving first at the Lac de Bious-Artigues, a popular spot for local families and hikers. The route then continues along the GR10, contouring the lake and ascending through the wooded mountainside.
This hike passes by another five major lakes, in addition to a number of smaller, unnamed tarns. The lakes themselves are simply gorgeous, but you may be distracted by the mountain drama unfolding around you as you hike. The views from the Pic d’Ayous are some of the most dramatic and beautiful in the Pyrenees, with a 360-degree panorama that extends over the tallest peaks and ridges of the range. You’ll have a stellar view of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, and the Spanish ridges that extend to the south.
As the trail continues the views just keep getting better and better. Lac Bersau and Lac Castérau both reflect the surrounding mountains perfectly in their pristine waters, creating some fabulous photo opportunities. This is a Pyrenean hike not to be missed.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, the Refuge d’Ayous is open between May and October, offering budget accommodation and excellent local fare. Alternatively, head to the lower Vallée d’Ossau, where you’ll find a range of good campsites near Laruns and the area to the north. There’s plenty to explore in this beautiful region, but the principal attraction is for hikers – this is the place to grab your hiking boots and head out onto the trail.
Lac de Montbel
Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the heart of the Ariège region of southwest France, the Lac de Montbel is a wonderful destination for a family break. The ‘lake’ is actually an artificial reservoir, fed by the waters of the River Hers, and is particularly known for its dazzling turquoise color, a result of the lime-rich clay that forms the base of the lake. Its brilliant color is perfectly offset by the lush green forests that surround the waters.
Although the Lac de Montbel is a popular spot for families and visitors, it remains relatively undeveloped, and the expansive shoreline means that you’ll easily find a little peace and privacy. The lake covers 1400 acres, providing ample space for all kinds of water sports, including sailing, swimming, paddle boarding, canoeing and kayaking. In addition, the area around the lake is a popular spot for horseback riding and hiking, with many accessible trails and beautiful picnic spots.
There are several campsites that border the Lac de Montbel, but our favorite has to be the no-frills Camping Montbel le Fort, perched on a small hill on the eastern side of the lake. The view over the lake from this small, budget-friendly campsite is unbeatable, and you’ll find large, grassy pitches with plenty of shade and room for multiple tents and camping cars, or mobile homes available to rent on a weekly basis. The owners provide a warm welcome and plenty of local tips for how to enjoy the region and make the most of your stay.
Montbel is an ideal jumping-off point for other activities in the Pyrenees and Ariège regions. The lake itself is close to the pleasant village of Chalabre, where you’ll find a handful of friendly restaurants and bars, and some excellent bakeries and small grocery stores.
Montbel is also within easy driving distance from the historic Cathar strongholds of Carcassonne and Montsegur, where you’ll gain an insight into a fascinating part of this region’s history and culture. Although it might seem difficult to imagine today, in the Middle Ages this peaceful place was ravaged by a brutal religious war, which left many scars on the landscape and towns. A trip to the Ariège is a wonderful opportunity to understand what makes this intriguing part of France so historically, culturally and linguistically distinctive.
The hike to the Lac d’Oô is one of the most stunning routes in the Pyrenees, passing through open green fields, lush, dense forest, and a beautiful valley, before finally emerging at the gorgeous Lac d’Oô. A powerful waterfall plunges 275m into the still waters of the lake, one of the highest in the Pyrenees. This is a wonderful place to sit on the rocks, relax, and enjoy the view.
The hike to can easily be extended to take in some of the other beautiful lakes in the Parc National des Pyrénées. Continue along the GR10 from the lake and ascend through a section of beech trees, where you’ll have (in our view) the best view of the lake and waterfall. The route continues to the Col d’Espingo (1967m) with spectacular views of the dramatic mountain Cirque d’Espingo, and two beautiful lakes – the Lac d’Espingo and the Lac Saussat. Those with plenty of energy can continue as far as the Lac du Portillon, standing at an elevation of 2670m and offering a jaw-dropping view of the highest glacier-topped peaks of the Pyrenees, extending all the way across the Spanish border.
To make this route into a multi-day backpacking trip, stop off at one of the charming refuges that line the GR10, including the friendly Refuge d’Espingo. The area around the Lac d’Oô is a wonderful place to explore, with several other refuges that offer fantastic traditional local food. In particular, the restaurants close to the car park for the Lac d’Oô offer some wonderful local specialties – don’t miss L’Auberge d’Astau which serves up delicious, locally-sourced organic trout fillets.
Néouvielle Lake District
Known as the lake country of the Pyrenees, the Néouvielle National Nature Reserve takes the crown when it comes to beautiful Pyrenean lakes. This 5720-acre nature reserve is located in the Néouvielle massif in the central Pyrenees and is known for its unusual and rare flora and fauna. Here you’ll wander through fragrant pine forests and dip your toes in pristine lakes and cool tarns, with over 70 lakes and ponds within the boundaries of the national reserve alone.
The Néovielle Lake District is home to some fabulous plants and animals, and its unusual microclimate has helped to create a paradise for rare species. This is the ultimate Pyrenean destination for lovers of nature. Come in the right season and you’ll catch the mountain rhododendrons in full flower, or raise your eyes to the heavens and catch a glimpse of red kites, bearded vultures, golden eagles and griffon vultures. Forests of black pine clothe the mountainsides, creating habitats for species such as the alpine marmot, heathercock, red crossbill and Pyrenean desman. The incredible biodiversity of this national park is truly breathtaking.
The name ‘Néouvielle’ comes from the Occitan words meaning ‘snow’ and ‘old’, and is thought to refer to the many glaciers that once coated the tall granite peaks. The countless lakes that dot the region are, in many places all that remain of these ancient ice giants, the product of glacial moraines created by the retreating ice. The distinctive granite rocks and tranquil lakes make the Néouvielle National Natural Reserve a truly magical destination.
If you’re looking for a place to base yourself, don’t miss the Camping du Moudang, a fantastic little campsite perfectly located for hiking in the Néouvielle National Reserve. With plenty of space for both tents and campervans, this is one of the best value campsites in the Pyrenees. The cluster of small villages located close to the Néouvielle Massif, including Sailhan, Estensan and Saint-Lary-Soulan offer a range of guesthouses and restaurants that serve up tasty local dishes, making the most of the amazing local produce. The valley is also home to many important pieces of cultural heritage, including traditional buildings, churches, frescos and artworks, so there’s even something here to satisfy history buffs!
With fascinating cultural heritage, stunning landscapes, incredible biodiversity, and lots of exciting activities on offer (don’t miss the opportunity to go canyoning or rafting!), we think that the Néouvielle National Natural Reserve is one of the finest destinations in the Pyrenees.
Wherever you choose, we’re sure that the unique, beautiful, wild Pyrenees will capture your heart and keep you coming back and again.